This past summer I traveled to Seattle to participate in a Refugee Rights & Immigration Reform program through URJ Mitzvah Corps, an international Jewish teen social justice program. This trip is focused on learning about refugee issues in the US through volunteer service at a summer camp for refugee children. During the first week, we focused on group bonding, exploring the city of Seattle, and learning about education for refugees. The second week, we volunteered with the International Rescue Committee at their summer camp for refugee kids. We stayed at the University of Washington campus which also allowed us to experience living on a college campus for a few weeks.
The first week was primarily for learning more about one another since we would be working together at the camp the following week. We also explored Seattle to get a better sense of what living in Seattle was like. We visited a few museums and a couple of other tourist attractions. We also met with Jewish Family Services to learn about the work they have done in Seattle with resettling refugees. Each day we learned about a different aspect of the refugee crisis, but the one that stood out the most was that there are 25.4 million refugees in the world, a number that is growing by the day. Towards the end of the week, we volunteered at a community garden in a refugee community along with other teens that lived in Tukwila, where the summer camp would be held. Lastly, we went through training with the International Rescue Committee to prepare us for camp the following week.
On the first day of camp, I greeted two brothers (their names have been removed to protect their anonymity), who originally were from Iraq. They explained that they had been living in Australia for the past four years until moving to Seattle three months prior. I started to draw chalk with the older boy who was 9 years old. A little later, we went to the group activity lead by a local theater group. I encouraged him to participate but he suddenly was not very engaged. It was odd how talkative he was when we were drawing, yet timid when we were in the group setting.
The rest of the day we participated in the activities side by side. I learned more about his life: the book he was reading, the video games he liked to play, and even that summer school was very boring for him. He was a very sweet and witty kid. We played some more soccer and another group game. Then, we said goodbye and went on our separate ways.
The following days looked very similar to the first. While he still enjoyed soccer and football, he began to participate more in group activities without me having to encourage him. As he began to meet other kids, he became more comfortable with playing the games and doing the theater activities. I noticed him going out of his comfort zone more through robotics activities and even joining a game of jump rope. Although he was quite shy on the first day, he suddenly was raising his hand to answer questions and volunteer for games.
A few days into camp, an older man named Steve arrived to volunteer and teach tennis. He pulled out a bag of tennis rackets and asked the young boy if he wanted to play. His eyes lit up and he said he had never played before, but he wanted to try it. A group of teens and campers walked up to the tennis courts to play. As we started playing, Steve began showing the young kids how to hold a racket and how to swing with correct form. Many kids began to get frustrated, but the young boy continued to play with a smile on his face. It was great to see him trying something new and staying with it, even when maybe it was not something that came easy. When the day ended, he kept saying “one more, one more!” because he did not want to stop playing. This enthusiasm was night and day from his timidness in the group on the first day of camp. This transformation was amazing to witness first hand.
URJ Mitzvah Corps allowed me to further explore the refugee issue in the United States and volunteer with children in need in a meaningful way. I was able to deepen my knowledge about what being a young refugee in the US is like and help kids get more adjusted to living in a new place. It was definitely one of the best programs I have ever participated in, and I recommend it to anyone that is interested in social justice and wants to make a positive change in a community in need.